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Conflict Management


1.      Introduction

Conflicts escalate tension and emotion that would negatively impact the performance and effectiveness of individuals, work groups, and the entire organization (Whetten and Cameron, 1998; Lewicki et al, 1993).  Conflicts are unavoidable but it must be managed constructively to allow synergy (Eunson, 1994) for group effectiveness. 

1.1  Purpose and Structure of the Report

The purpose of this report is to analyze a dysfunctional conflict scenario using conflict management theories.  The definition of conflict will be established and the discussion will be compared to the theoretical background of the subject.  After the analysis, a conclusion will be drawn with recommendations that will help to improve the ability of the parties to deal with future conflicts more effectively. 

1.2  Literature Review

Conflict is .a pattern of communication behaviors between two or more people which, as a whole, express degrees of negative orientation concerning perceptions of the context・ (Yoder et al, 1996).  Wilson (1996) argued that conflict also implies the incompatibility of opposing ideas or values; the struggle over perceived scarce status, power, and/or resources; and the goal of preventing, obstructing, interfering, injuring, or in some way making it less likely that the opposing goal will be achieved.  As group members interact verbally and non-verbally for a common purpose (Lahiff and Penrose, 1997), their interdependence is easily engaged in an expressed struggle and interferes with one another (Hocker and Wilmot, 1995).  Inter-group conflict is dysfunction if it creates destructive consequences such as competitive processes, misperception and bias, emotionality, decreased communication, blurred issues, rigid commitments,  magnified differences, minimized similarities and escalation of the conflict (Lewicki et al, 1993).  Hence it must be managed constructively by all group members to benefit the group and its communication (Yoder et al, 1996). 

2.      Description

Bob supervised an engineering group with all males in United Mining Pty Ltd.  Sue was a new employee and then assigned to a work team with David, Steve and Doug (will use .the team・ to represent the three males for discussion).  Due to their individual differences, they were engaged into dysfunctional conflict and Bob was required to intervene for resolution.  Figure 1 shows the relationship of the group.   

The characters in the scenario implied the individual behaviors causing the conflict (refer to Table of Behaviors in Appendix 1 and Analysis of Behavior in Appendix 2).  These will be analyzed in the discussion section using conflict management theories. 

3.      Discussion

The project group in United Mining Pty Ltd demonstrated a conflict situation due to ineffective communication behaviors.  Conflict behavior with individual differences is difficult to manage (Hocker and Wilmot, 1995) because it brings distorted perceptions and impaired communication (Lewicki et al, 1993).  As the underlying dynamics of a conflict may be different from its expression, it is crucial to identify the tactical points for intervention (Lewicki et al, 1993) by conflict management model (Figure 2) suggested by Whetten and Cameron (1998). 

3.1  Sources of Conflict

Communication behavior is the central element to create and reflect conflicts (Hocker and Wilmot, 1995) so it is essential to analyze individual behavior for the underlying sources of conflict.  

3.1.1        Bob・s Behavior

Bob was ineffective to use leadership power to maintain interpersonal relationship in the group (Borchers, 1999).  Rasberry and Lindsay (1994) emphasized that effective leaders must use situational leadership styles (Figure 3) to create supportive group communication.  Bob was a delegating leader by achievement-oriented through entrusting responsibility and authority to subordinates (Rasberry and Lindsay, 1994).  It was functioned as all male engineers had worked together for years and were capable to do the tasks with minimal supervision.  However, Bob did not adapt to the new situation with Sue to a reinforcing leadership that would help the new group to get along through supportive communication (Rasberry and Lindsay, 1994). 

Bob was insensitive to the new group・s development in Fisher Model (Figure 4), which helps to discover any skipping phase, anticipate group・s movement and when the group being stalled (Wilson and Hanna, 1993).  The orientation phase was obviously skipped so group members did not understand the task and one another・s frame of reference (Wilson and Hanna, 1993) and move the struggle directly to conflict. 

He also failed to recognize the underlying attraction that can serve as an important source of motivation (Wilson and Hanna, 1993).  The scenario implied that motivation was insufficient to balance between the attraction to Sue (group・s goal) and the team (group・ activities) which caused poor group cohesiveness.

3.1.2        Sue・s Behavior

Sue was diligent and serious who adopted task roles focusing on completion of group task with expertise behavior (Eunson, 1994) through her .know-it-all・ attitude.  She perceived incompatible goals (Hocker and Wilmot, 1995) with the team as she felt they adopted destructive roles (Eunson, 1994) satisfying own needs and promoting bad performance.  She was over-emphasis on facts without empathizing other・s opinion and feeling by balancing task and socio-emotional roles (Eunson, 1994).

The group identity was goldbricking together with other activities like music, sport and partying.  Sue・s .no informal conversations・ behavior was seen as a deviance due to a lack of conformity to the group norm (Yoder et al, 1996). 

3.1.3        The Team・s Behavior

The group・s culture (Yoder et al, 1996) before was identified as male group with David as informal leader and the standard behavior was set as goldbricking with performance more than acceptable.  Sue・s enthusiastic, diligent and serious violated the group culture and was not in a behavior to the rules and norms.  

The team perceived scarce resources (Hocker and Wilmot, 1995), for example, they perceived they had too little power (as Sue had expert power) and self-esteem (Sue was a young female and master degree graduate).  The conflict was intensified when Sue did not respect and save their face through coaching in public.  The team also perceived interference (Hocker and Wilmot, 1995) when Sue offered help to the group and asked Bob for additional work.    

3.2  Identify the Conflict Situation

Based on the above underlying sources of conflict, the type of conflict with appropriate strategies will be identified to resolve the problem. 

3.2.1        Type of Conflict

The analysis of the individual behavior has showed that the situation went through the stage of conflict (Figure 5) through latent conflict, perceived, felt to manifest (Rasberry and Lindsay, 1994).

Sue was engaged in relationship conflict with the team as characterized by clashes over self-oriented due to negative behaviors, misperceptions and miscommunication (Wilson, 1996 and Melamed, 1999).  This leads to unnecessary escalating spiral of destructive and extrinsic conflict (Yoder et al, 1996) that created a defensive atmosphere distracting the group from its task and integration.   

As there was no constructive resolution, the struggle became dysfunctional conflict (Figure 6) as uncontrolled opposition and discontent hampered communication, undermined cohesiveness, elevated in-fighting for position rather than achievement of group goals, and eventually had an adverse effect on group effectiveness (McKenna, 1994; Schermerhorn, 1996).

3.2.2        Conflict Management

Knowing styles and motives of each other will help to handle the situation so it requires a mutual commitment to changing behavioral and situational elements that created the conflict (Hocker and Wilmot, 1991; Tucker-Ladd, 1995).  However Sue and the team did not understand and only focused on own needs.  Sue adopted avoidance strategies (McKenna, 1994) by withdrawal (concentrated on her own work after her help was abruptly turned down) and suppression (not airing her feelings).  On the other hand, the team used destructive competitive strategies (Yoder et al, 1996) to focus their goal to .win・ by power struggle (threatening to quit or transfer) and hostility.  Both strategies were ineffective as they were in a win-lose struggle and reflected in assertive and uncooperative behavior (McKenna, 1994).

Bob・s intervention is to reach a compromise between hostile and incompatible viewpoints, demands, and attitudes (Rasberry and Lindsay, 1994).  Mulholland (1991) emphasized that the differences are the focal point of the interaction that must be addressed and dealt with.  Collaborating (Figure 7) with negotiation integration (Fisher and Ury, 1999; Whetten and Cameron, 1998) is more effective as it encourages cooperation and participation among all members but maintains a supportive climate to keep the group goals as priority over individual goals (Yoder et al, 1996).  It suggests win-win solution that adversaries are persuaded by solid argument, civility, facts, persistence, and standards to focuses on problem solving, discover of mutual interests, mutual gains, and objectivity (Johnson, 1993).  Therefore, the problem is most likely to be resolved and both parties are committed to the solution and satisfied that they have been treated fairly.

4.      Conclusion

The engineering group of United Mining Pty Ltd demonstrated a conflict situation due to ineffective communication behaviors.  Dysfunctional conflicts grounded in differences of perceptions and expectations are generally intense and difficult to defuse.  Effective conflict management involves both analytic and behavioral elements to understand the true causes of a conflict before selecting an appropriate conflict-management or negotiation approach.   

In order to handle the situation, Bob should use the collaborative approach with integrative negotiation strategy, which should produce the highest-quality solutions and has the least detrimental effect on relationships.  Conflict can be good for a group if it is managed appropriately.  By airing differences, group members can produce quality decisions and satisfying interpersonal relationships. 

5.      Recommendations

Bob is recommended to implement the strategies as the following to resolve the dysfunctional conflict (Brown, 1998; Fisher and Ury, 1999; Lye, 1996; Whetten and Cameron, 1998):

(1)     Acknowledge that a conflict exists and maintain a neutral posture.  Bob should assume the role of facilitator, not judge.  So he should be impartial towards the parties and issues.  If correction is necessary, do it in private.

(2)     Separate the people from the problem.  Bob can arrange discussion with side-by-side seating and a blackboard in front to make it clear that all participants are facing the problem together.

(3)     Manage the discussion to ensure fairness.  Bob should focus the discussion on the conflict・s impact on performance and detrimental effect of continued conflict.  Keep the discussion issue-oriented not personally-oriented so do not allow any party to dominate the discussion.

(4)     Explore options by focusing on interests behind stated positions.  Bob should explore the underlying interest of Sue and the team and help them to see commonalties among their goals, values and principles to generate alternatives.

(5)     Promote supportive communication.  Bob should use supportive communication in a sense of mutual support and acceptance seeing oneself as part of group acting in each other・s interests.

(6)     Provide emotional-based training.  Bob should provide training programs and techniques for skills of emotional base like reflecting self-esteem, flexibility, and openness to different ways of thinking and acting.

The above guidelines will be only effective with support and agreed-upon from all parties.  Bob has to establish a mechanism for follow-up and create benchmarks for measuring progress and ensuring accountability but encourage flexibility in adjusting the plan to meet emerging circumstances.


References

Borchers, Tim (1999), .Small Group Communication・, Allyn & Bacon, [Online, accessed on 14 May 2000]
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Eunson, Baden (1994), Communicating for Team Building, John Wiley, Brisbane

Fisher, Roger and Ury, William (1999), Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In, Random House Business Books, London

Hocker, Joyce L and Wilmot, William W (1995), Interpersonal Conflict, Fourth Edition, Wm C Brown Communications, Inc, USA

Johnson, Ralph A (1993), Negotiation Basics: Concepts, Skills, and Exercises, Sage Publications, London

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Tucker-Ladd, Clayton E (1995), .Helping Skills・, Mental Health Net, [Online, accessed on 13 May 2000]
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Yoder, Donald D; Hugenberg, Lawrence and Wallace, Samuel P (1996), Creating Competent Communication, Second Edition, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, USA


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